Nicole Melleby on Depression and Hope | Middle Grade and Mental Health

Pluto, the main character of Melleby's How I Became a Planet, just wants to love things again like she used to. Depression changes her, but with a support system and time, Pluto knows she will be okay. 

How to Become a Planet (cover), Nicole Melleby portrait, and childhood photo

Nicole Melleby is the author of How to Become a Planet, about a girl grappling with depression. With the help of a new friend, she challenges herself to meet some small but significant goals over the course of a summer, and she learns to move beyond wanting to be “fixed." Melleby was profiled in the SLJ article "Not OK? That's OK: Middle Grade Authors Provide Compassionate Portrayals of Mental Health." 

What kinds of interventions, treatments, supports, and therapies take place in your book?
In How to Become a Planet, Pluto is on medication for anxiety and depression. Because she missed so much school, she has a tutor to help her catch up over the summer. She also sees a therapist. It’s not easy for Pluto, and at first, it doesn’t go well. It gets better, though. She also has a supportive single mom who does what she can.

Tell me about the effects mental health has on the main character, their family, and those around them.
Pluto’s depression has a huge effect on her mom. She loves her daughter, and she wants to help but doesn’t know what’s best for her. Pluto stops going to school and stops texting and hanging out with her best friend, Meredith. She also has a hard time enjoying the things she used to love. She lives on the water, on the boardwalk, and she can’t figure out how to just love it like she used to.

Also, since I’m no stranger to the struggles of crappy health insurance, I knew if I was going to write about this small, single parent household, where their financial source is this little pizzeria they own on the boardwalk, I’d address what that meant for Pluto’s healthcare. Healthcare is, frankly, expensive as all hell. Pluto is aware of this, regardless of how much her mom tries to keep that part of it away from her.

What is the most challenging part of writing about these topics for middle grade readers?
Just making sure I’m being as honest as possible. There’s no one answer, there’s no one story for someone struggling with mental illness. I also write exclusively about queer kids. Pluto isn’t depressed because she’s queer, but those two parts of her aren’t mutually exclusive, either.

How did you balance depicting the reality of living with mental illness with the important message of hope?
Getting a diagnosis isn’t the end for Pluto—it’s a new beginning. I wanted to show that despite it feeling so hard, there is always hope. In the end, Pluto still has depression, she still has her struggles, but she has her support system and the understanding of her needs, and she’ll be okay.

Any recommendations for books with good mental health representation?
Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh, Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand, and Thanks A Lot, Universe by Chad Lucas.

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